The Newport Rising was the last large-scale armed rebellion against authority in Great Britain
When the Chartist movement was established in the late 1830s, only 18 per cent of the adult male population of Britain could vote (before 1832 just 10 per cent could vote). Much of the working-class population were living in poverty, but without a voice in politics, they did not feel they could change their situation.
This was to be achieved by campaigning for six key changes to the parliamentary system:
LEADERS OF CHARTISM
Henry Vincent (1813-1878) stood unsuccessfully for Parliament seven times between 1841 and 1852 as a Chartist candidate. However, as MPs were unpaid, the financial consequences of being elected might have been disastrous. He is depicted here campaigning during the 1842 Ipswich by-election. Originally a printer, he made his living from journalism and later as a professional lecturer. One of the objectives of the 1839 Newport Rising was to rescue Vincent from Monmouth Gaol where he was a serving a sentence for speaking at a ‘seditious assemblage’.
John Frost was Newport’s delegate to the General Convention of the Industrious Classes (the First Chartist Convention), and one of 12 delegates whose portrait was drawn for William Lovett’s newspaper The Charter. Born and brought up in Newport, Frost was apprenticed as a tailor, working in the town and in London before establishing his own successful draper’s business.
After a series of disputes with a local solicitor who also served as town clerk, in 1823 Frost was imprisoned for six months for libel. On his release from prison, he turned to radical politics, and in 1835 became both a town councillor and magistrate. Frost’s politics did not go down well; he was forced to resign as mayor in 1837, and while serving as a Convention delegate, was stripped of his role as magistrate by the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne after a furious exchange of correspondence.
Returning to Wales after the Convention, Frost became the leading figure in the Newport Rising of 1839, for which he was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to transportation for life. Following a nationwide campaign over many years, Frost was granted a pardon in 1854 on condition that he never return to Britain. The condition was lifted in 1856, and Frost sailed for Bristol, living in retirement at Stapleton until his death at the advanced age of 93.
He is buried in the Church of the Holy Trinity with St Edmund at Horfield, Bristol.
Chartists demanded votes for all men over the age of 21 (some wanted votes for women, but it was felt that this would make the movement a laughing stock)
CHARTISM AND WOMEN
Despite this many in the Chartist movement welcomed women. They attended meetings, marched in rallies and even named their children after their Chartist heroes! They were some of Henry Vincent’s most enthusiastic supporters and when he arrived at Ponllanfraith in March 1839 a hundred girls with flags and flowers led him from the Greyhound to the Coach and Horses in Blackwood. Vincent wanted votes for women as well as for all men.
The Newport Female Patriotic Society organised tea parties and recitals in support of the Charter. On one occasion a local butcher's daughter, Miss Dickenson joined Henry Vincent in leading 300 women out in to Newport High Street for an impromptu procession and public meeting. As Vincent wrote in Rambles: I explained the principles of the Charter... and appealed to the ladies for assistance, encouragement, and support .....The Newport ladies are progressing with great spirit to the terror of the Aristocrats of the town and neighbourhood’.
Mary Brewer came to the forefront as a Chartist organiser in Newport, following the imprisonment of Henry Vincent and her brother, William Edwards. She collected lodge subscriptions and sold Chartist newspapers. Elsewhere landladies of public houses also roused support. Joan Williams, the wife of Zephaniah Williams, organised the Blaina Female Chartist Lodge that met at their beer house, the Royal Oak. There were similar associations in Blackwood, Pontllanfraith, Pontypool, Abersychan and Merthyr Tydfil.
Over a thousand Monmouthshire women signed the National Petition to Parliament in 1839. Counted separately, women contributed one in five of all signatures, even though the charter would not get them the vote. With women involved, Chartism in south Wales developed as a family movement and many of the mass Chartist meetings of the summer of 1839 were family affairs with a carnival atmosphere. Some in authority put the blame for Chartist activities firmly on women, who had urged their menfolk on.
THE NEWPORT RISING
It is claimed up to 10,000 took part in the Newport Rising on November 4 1839. 50 Chartists were seriously wounded and 22 killed in a confrontation with troops in Newport. The Chartists were convinced that some of their fellows had been imprisoned at the Westgate Hotel. Filing quickly down the steep Stow Hill, the Chartists arrived at the small square in front of the hotel at about 9.30 am. The flash point came when the crowd demanded the release of the imprisoned Chartists. A brief, violent and bloody battle ensued. Shots were fired by both sides, contemporary accounts indicating that the Chartists attacked first. But the soldiers defending the hotel despite being greatly outnumbered by the large and very angry crowd, had vastly superior firepower, training and discipline, all of which soon broke the crowd. The Chartists did manage to enter the building temporarily, but were forced to retreat in disarray. After a fiercely fought battle, lasting approximately half an hour, between 10 and 24 of their number (a fair estimate is 22) had been killed by the troops and upwards of 50 had been wounded.
In the aftermath 200 or more Chartists were
arrested for being involved and twenty-one were charged with high treason. All
three main leaders of the march, John Frost, Zephaniah Williams, and William
Jones, were found guilty on the charge of high treason and were sentenced at the
Shire Hall in Monmouth to be hanged, drawn and quartered. They were to be the
last people to be sentenced to this punishment in England and Wales.
After a nationwide petitioning campaign and, extraordinarily, direct lobbying of the Home Secretary by the Lord Chief Justice the government eventually commuted the sentences of each to transportation for life. Other Chartists involved in some way included James Stephens, John Lovell, John Rees and William Price, and according to some accounts Allan Pinkerton.
South Wales Chartist Song, 1839, to rally support
for John Frost and other imprisoned leaders of the Newport Rising 1839.
Uphold these bold Comrades who suffer for you,
Who nobly stand foremost, demanding your due,
Away with the timid, 'tis treason to fear—
To surrender or falter when danger is near.
For now that our leaders disdain to betray
'Tis base to desert them, or succour delay.
A Hundred years, a thousand years we're marching on the road
The going isn't easy yet, we've got a heavy load
The way is blind with blood and sweat & death sings in our ears
But time is marching on our side, we will defeat the years.
We men of bone, of sunken shank, our only treasure death
Women who carry at the breast heirs to the hungry earth
Speak with one voice we march we rest and march again upon the years
Sons of our sons are listening to hear the Chartist cheers
Sons of our sons are listening to hear the Chartist cheers.
As a result of the
Chartist rising the 37th Regiment (literally an Irish Catholic Regiment) was
stationed at Newport.
The tragedy of 1839 did not dent support for Chartism and in 1842 a petition for the Charter comprised 3,317,752 signatures. The petition was taken in procession through the streets of London and presented to the House of Commons on 2 May 1842.
None of the six points of the Charter were achieved during the lifetime of the movement, but five of the six have subsequently come to pass (the exception being annual parliaments), and of course full political equality for women was also attained in two stages, in 1918 and in 1928. The Chartists were, thus, ahead of their time in envisaging a much more democratic political system than the one that existed in nineteenth-century Britain.